As the offseason nears its end, here are the top storylines for each AFC North team heading into training camp.
Baltimore Ravens: The search for a receiver
Veteran receiver Derrick Mason(notes) dropped a bomb on the team earlier this week when he announced plans to retire from the NFL. Now there's a major hole opposite No. 1 wideout Mark Clayton(notes).
I think it's pretty obvious from my writing that I'm a big fan of this franchise and the style of football the Ravens play. However, now they go into another season with a question mark on offense. For me, the worry falls on the shoulders of second-year quarterback Joe Flacco(notes), who has lost a valuable weapon in the passing game just weeks before camps starts. Does this hinder his development, or can the Ravens find someone on the roster who can step up in what should be an open competition for the No. 2 role? The Ravens have some names like Kelley Washington(notes) on the depth chart, but would any of these guys cause problems for defensive coordinators or cornerbacks in the AFC North? Or does this team already have enough in a power running game, Mark Clayton, tight end Todd Heap(notes) and one of the best defenses in recent memory?
Expect this to be a collective effort to fill that No. 2 role, and daily battles in camp and during preseason games to decide who emerges as the opening day starter. As an alternative, is it too late for GM Ozzie Newsome to pull off a deal for a Brandon Marshall(notes) or an Anquan Boldin(notes)? That's something to think about as we move forward.
Cincinnati Bengals: Marvin's last stand
There isn't a coach in the NFL who's had as many free passes as Marvin Lewis. I have to believe that the 2009 season will be his last in Cincy unless he can find a way to lead this team into the postseason. Can he do it?
The Bengals go into camp with a healthy Carson Palmer(notes) at quarterback, and this fact alone gives them a shot to compete in the division. They addressed their offensive line, which gave up 51 sacks in '08, by taking a risk and going after Alabama offensive tackle Andre Smith(notes) with the No. 6 pick (despite his off-the-field red flags). Additionally, they brought in one of my favorite guys in wide receiver Laveranues Coles(notes) from the Jets, whom I expect to replace T.J. Houshmandzadeh(notes) in terms of production. The club put its faith in running back Cedric Benson(notes), and receiver Chad Ochocinco wants us to believe he's back – via Twitter, of course – but what about the defense? Do they have enough playmakers to compete with the rest of the division? Can they get a pass rush out of their front – maybe from rookie Michael Johnson – and can they make plays in the secondary that can win games?
I doubt the Bengals are going to be picked to do much of anything this season, but as long as Palmer is under center – and they can play some defense in the second half of ballgames – then I can't count them out. But for Lewis' sake, this team needs a strong camp – and an injury-free camp – to hit the ground running. They can't afford a slow start.
Cleveland Browns: The quarterback battle
All eyes will be on the quarterback position every day in camp when it comes to evaluating the Browns. Brady Quinn(notes) and Derek Anderson(notes) better be ready to battle because every throw counts.
Most clubs in the NFL chart each and every throw a quarterback makes during practice, and this will be no different in Cleveland. Every time Quinn and Anderson drop back to pass, they will be evaluated – whether they're in 7-on-7 passing drills, one-on-one drills with receivers and defensive backs or in the team periods to close out practice. But what might be a key factor is how each quarterback responds in the situational aspects of practice. Who can handle the red zone period and produce? Who can handle the pressure of the two-minute period, and who can make the proper checks at the line versus the defense in the blitz periods? As I said, everything will come into play because this is a major decision for this franchise. Both quarterbacks are from previous coaching regimes in Cleveland, and both need to prove to head coach Eric Mangini that they're the best option to lead the team.
I expect both to get a start in the first two preseason games, but if I'm the Browns, I make my decision after that second contest. By the third preseason game, this offense needs to move forward and start game planning for the regular season – and you need to name a starting QB to move forward.
Pittsburgh Steelers: The rebirth of the running game
Not much you can say about a team that just won the Super Bowl, but if the Steelers want to repeat – and hold off the Ravens in the division – then the running game has to be better in Pittsburgh.
We all know that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger(notes) can make plays in the passing game, but the Steelers still need to use their ground game to establish ball control and grind out victories in the fourth quarter without counting on Big Ben to pull wins out of a hat. Willie Parker(notes), coming off a career-low 3.8 yards per carry, still is a threat any time he has the ball in his hands, but he needs to stay healthy. And the Steelers' offensive line, which puts Roethlisberger at risk every time he drops back to pass, needs to be better at the point of attack. Getting second-year back Rashard Mendenhall(notes) back in the mix will help take some of the load off Parker, keeping both backs fresh for another expected deep playoff run. Plus, it will make Roethlisberger a better quarterback and open up more options down the field in the passing game.
The Steelers finished 23rd in the NFL last season in total rushing yards per game (105.6), and for us to see them in Miami this February, it has to improve. This should be a top priority when this club puts on the pads in camp.
Follow Bowen on Twitter at @MattBowen41
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- the Ravens